Posted by: W. E. Poplaski | June 12, 2008

How to Study: Facts, Opinions and Inferences

The two main processes of learning—gathering and evaluating—can be arranged into three steps (with step 2 being a transition between gathering and evaluating):


1.Take written notes; …check!

2.Mentally acquire and remember notes; …check!

3.Light a fire: familiarize, associate and understand notes; …what? how?


Many students trip up on step 3—the critical thinking step.  However, there are things you can do to help keep yourself on track.

First, you must have a clear understanding of the terms ‘facts’, ‘opinions’ and ‘inferences’.  San Antonio College has a website, Strategies for Success, that describes the differences     (


FACT: reports information that can be directly observed or can be verified or checked for accuracy.

OPINION: expresses an evaluation based on a personal judgment or belief which may or may not be verifiable.

INFERENCE: a logical conclusion or a legitimate implication based on factual information.

Generally, facts are constants in historical study. But a compendium of facts is inevitably incomplete and deathly dull to read. Historians construct history by closing the gaps in their knowledge about the past, enlarge our understanding, and enliven their narrative by drawing logical inferences from their assembled facts. Often, they then use their expertise to arrive at a considered judgment about the wisdom or significance of past decisions and events.


Second, be aware that although it may seem the source of your information—whether a teacher or textbook—is providing you with nothing but facts, you should think again.  Just as in history texts, much of the information provided in science texts are inferences rather than facts.  That is, the information found in science textbooks comes from experimental conclusions. These conclusions are inferences drawn from statistical analysis of data.  Often, the material you learn is a complicated mixture of facts, opinions and inferences.

Third, be alert for tips that will help you distinguish between facts and opinions.  Ask yourself these questions (from ):



Does the author use words that interpret or label, such as:

pretty, ugly, safe, dangerous, evil, attractive, well-dressed, good, and so on?

Are there words that clue you to statements of opinion, such as:

probably, perhaps, usually, often, sometimes, on occasion, I believe, I think, in my opinion, I feel, I suggest?


Can the fact be verified by direct observation?

Can the facts be trusted? How did the author come to the facts?

Does the author have the skill and experience to make such a statement?

Are the facts presented in an objective manner? (any bias evident or suspected?)

Can the study which generates the facts be duplicated?

Have unfavorable or negative points been left out? (are there counter-studies?)


Deciding whether the statements that make up your notes are facts, opinions or inferences is the beginning of developing a deeper understanding of them.  The author of your reading material strung those statements together to make a point or describe a concept (logicians call these collections of statements ‘arguments’).  Deconstructing an argument (taking it apart and examining its facts, opinions and inferences) is a great way to become familiar with it.

When you become familiar with an argument by deconstructing it, you are able to associate it with similar arguments (and contrast it with opposing arguments). Furthermore, you are able to turn it around in your head by asking yourself what are its assumptions (assumptions can be thought of as ‘unproven facts’—which are not facts, at all—that the argument relies upon), and what conditions affect the argument’s validity.

Visit Longview Community College’s website ( ) to get an introduction to critical thinking and logic.

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